Category Archives: chanterelles

Super Bowl Chili

chili1On days like today, it pays to have a deep bench. I dropped back and went long for…dried pulverized chanterelles and frozen porcini.

First, I had to make a morning run to the market for some last minute provisions. The place was a mob scene at 9 a.m. Even little old ladies were decked out in Seahawks jerseys, pushing carts full of beer. This town is pumped up. The cashier had a big cutout picture of Richard Sherman on a stick that he was waving around when the line got disorderly

But this is still Seattle, and my job today is to bring a vegetarian dish to the neighborhood Super Bowl party. Everyone loves chili. Mine will be a little different from the norm.

First, the chanterelles. If you dried your excess last fall and buzzed in the food processor like I did, then you have a very nice stash of magic mushroom powder that adds a layer of depth to soups, stews, gravies, and rubs. It’s a little sweet yet still earthy. I think of this chanterelle powder as my special teams outfit.

Next, the porcini. I’m guessing the one-pound bag I pulled out of the freezer was about two pounds fresh. Back in the fall, during an epic king bolete pop, I chopped up pounds and pounds of the stuff, sautéed in butter, and vacuum-sealed in single meal sizes. Today the porcini is my meat substitute. Think of it as that now-legendary decision against the ‘Niners to scratch the field-goal attempt and go for seven.

Here’s the play-by-play:

2 cups dried black beans
2 medium yellow onions, diced
6 cloves garlic, minced
1 bay leaf
1 15 oz can pinto beans
1 15 oz can red kidney beans
1 28 oz can diced tomato
2 heaping tbsp chanterelle dust, reconstituted in 2 cups warm water
2+ cups prepared porcini *
1 green bell pepper, diced
1 red bell pepper, diced
1 jalapeño pepper, thinly sliced
olive oil
4 tsp chili powder
4 tsp cumin
2 tsp paprika
cayenne pepper to taste
oregano to taste

* As noted above, the porcini should be fresh or frozen, about 2 cups cooked.

1. Rinse black beans, cover with water in a heavy pot, and bring to boil. Reduce heat, add half the onions and garlic plus a bay leaf and simmer until soft, about an hour. As the water reduces, stir in chanterelle stock.

2. Add pinto beans, kidney beans, and diced tomato to black bean mixture. Continue to simmer.

3. Saute remaining onion and garlic in a couple tablespoons of olive oil until soft. Add porcini and cook together a few minutes before adding all the peppers. Continue to sauté mixture until peppers are soft. Stir in spices, cook a couple minutes until vegetables are thoroughly coated, and add to beans.

Serve with shredded cheese, sour cream, chopped onion, cilantro, and copious quantities of beer.


Pickled Chanterelles

chanterelle_pickle1As reported in earlier posts, the Pacific Northwest’s fall mushroom season has been a boon to recreational pickers this year. Kings, matsutake, chanterelles, sparassis, and others are fruiting in big numbers, and such abundance encourages us to get creative with how we stock the larder.

Most years I’ll sauté and freeze more than enough chanterelles, to name but one variety, to get me through the rest of the year. This season I’m taking it a bit further. I’m dehydrating and powdering the mushrooms to make a Chanterelle Spice Rub, and I’m also pickling them.

Here’s a very simple way to pickle chanties. The key is to get as much moisture out of the mushrooms before pickling so that they can then be bathed in liquid later. This makes for flavorful mushrooms with good texture. You can use any sort of vinegar, but cider vinegar complements the hints of stone fruit in chanterelles, while the addition of water insures that the mushroom’s delicate flavor isn’t overpowered.

2 lbs chanterelles
1 1/2 cups cider vinegar
1/2 cup water
1 tbsp kosher salt, plus a pinch
2 tbsp sugar
1 tbsp pickling spices *

* I used a commercial pickling blend that included black peppercorns, allspice, coriander seeds, mustard seeds, bay leaf, red chili pepper, ginger, cinnamon, cloves, mace, and cardamon. An equivalent amount of black peppercorns, allspice, and coriander seeds is fine, plus a bay leaf.

1. Use button chanterelles if possible. Clean carefully. Keep small mushrooms whole; cut larger ones in half or quarters.

2. Heat a deep sauté pan over medium without oil or butter. Add chanterelles and stir immediately, continuing to stir at an easy pace until the mushrooms begin to release their water. Increase the heat to high and continue to stir until most of the water has evaporated. Sprinkle a healthy pinch of salt over the chanterelles and reduce heat again to medium.

3. Add vinegar, water, salt, sugar, and pickling spices. Simmer 5 minutes.

4. Use a slotted spoon to pack mushrooms into sterilized jars. Pour liquid and spices over to cover, with a quarter-inch of head room. Top off with more vinegar if necessary.

5. Seal jars and process in a hot water bath for 15 minutes.

The Wild Table


One of the perks of being a writer (besides the endless hours of self-doubt and boatloads of cash) is the chance to hit the road and meet up with likeminded folks—and call it work. Likeminded in my case means those who enjoy spending time both outdoors in nature and indoors in the kitchen.

This past weekend I traveled down to Eugene, Oregon, for the Mt. Pisgah Mushroom Festival. Along the way I stopped near the funky coastal hamlet of Yachats to visit with a friend who I knew only from Facebook. David is an ace cook, mushroom forager, and photographer. His food photography graces the web site Earthy Delights. His wife Anna is of Russian descent, which makes her genetically predisposed to sleuthing out fungi.

Together the three of us hunted some of their favorite spots and came away with a cooler filled with beautiful #1 matsutake buttons, plump porcini, and a variety of other edible boletes. Back at their home, we celebrated our bounty in Russian fashion—Za vashe zdorovie!—with a shot of yellowfoot-infused vodka (and then another) and got down to the business of snapping a few pics of that evening’s wild table.

Unlike me, David is an organized and well prepared food photographer. He had a light box and tripod in his office along with various deflectors and gizmos. We set up some of that evening’s goodies, starting in the upper right corner and moving clockwise: yellowfoot-infused vodka, salt-cured saffron milkcaps, matsutake, golden chanterelles, king boletes, shots of yellowfoot vodka, wild scaber-stalk bread, dried chanterelle spice rub, and smoked salmon spread.

After a first course of homemade ravioli with a pork and chestnut filling and a salad course of romaine hearts with fresh-shaved porcini and a Meyer lemon dressing, we proceeded out front into the cool evening air to grill: matsutake caps with a ponzu marinade and dipping sauce of soy and key lime; traditional olive oil and garlic marinated porcini; a fillet of wild Chinook salmon with chanterelle spice rub and rock crab butter; and a dessert of pears with spruce bud syrup. As the decanter’s waterline of yellowfoot vodka ebbed, multiple bottles of Willamette Valley Pinot Noir appeared. It was a feast to savor, capping off a fruitful day of foraging with new friends on a miraculously sunny fall day on the Oregon Coast.

The next morning, after a rise-n-shine bowl of Matsutake Wonton Soup, I drove the pretty little Alsea River through the Coast Range, spying salmon fishermen along the way, to Eugene for the mushroom festival. It was a huge success, with a big crowd of fungal fanciers, more than 400 species identified, and a bluegrass band playing outside. Volunteers whooped it up at the After Party and I made the wise decision to spend one more night. I also had the opportunity to put a few faces to names, including the elusive Chicken-of-the-woods (aka Laetiporus Sulphureus) and Dimitar Bojantchev, moderator of the Mushroom Talk listserv. As a nightcap, my hosts in Eugene, Bruce and Peg, plied me with their delicious (and powerful) homemade blackberry brandy.

The next day I bid adieu to Madame Muscaria and the rest of the characters that make Eugene and the Oregon Coast such a pleasure to visit, with plans to make it back down there again as soon as possible.

Wild Mushroom Show

This year marks the 50th year of the Puget Sound Mycological Society’s annual mushroom show in Seattle, and what a silver anniversary it will be! Join the fungal fun this weekend in Seattle.

Unless you’ve been living under a mossy rock, you probably know this has been a extraordinary fall for fungi in the Pacific Northwest. The cool, wet weather is bringing out a diversity of wild mushrooms, including some of the mycophagist’s favorites: king boletesmatsutakebear’s head, and many more. The woods are so full of chanterelles right now that commercial pickers are earning a dollar or less per pound!

Rarities will also be on display. Seems like everyone is finding blue chanterelles this year, in a addition to many unusual varieties of inedible, colorful, and poisonous fungi.

If you’re new to mushrooms or looking to improve your knowledge, the annual show is a great way to bone up. Real mushrooms, identified by common and scientific names (and edibility), will be on display. Expert identifiers can ID your catch with their microscopes. There will be cooking demos, lectures, slide presentations, and more mushroom-themed kitsch than you can shake a morel-handled walking stick at.

I’ll be at the show on Saturday from 3pm until close, selling and signing copies of The Mushroom Hunters, and on Sunday I’ll be giving a slide talk, “Adventures on the Mushroom Trail,” at 1pm and signing books afterward.

PSMS Annual Show

Saturday, October 12, 2013 – 12pm – 7pm
Sunday, October 13, 2013 – 10am – 5pm

The Mountaineers
Magnuson Park
7700 Sandpoint Way NE,
Seattle, WA 98115

Fungi on Tap

Ask commercial mushroom pickers in the greater Pacific Northwest how the season’s going and they’ll probably shrug. The central Oregon matsutake pick is weak, chanterelles on the coast—though abundant—are at rock-bottom prices, and Cascade lobsters are turning fishy fast.

Now ask a recreational picker and you’re likely to hear that this is the best fall in recent memory. How can these two viewpoints coexist?

It’s just a function of the different perspectives. Commercial pickers are trying to earn a living while recreational pickers are stocking their larders. The fact is, it has been a boon season for rec hunters—and not just for edibles. All kinds of unusual species are fruiting this year, for reasons that are not readily apparent. It’s a reflection on how little we know about fungi.

Initially many of us figured this fall would be another bust, similar to previous falls of the last couple years. Oregon’s morel patches dried up fast, and an unusually parched July and early August suggested a dearth of fall fungi. Then we got hit with some heavy August downpours, and September has been noticeably cool and wet. Mushrooms that are especially sensitive to rainfall—hello kings!—have exploded. The chanterelles are always there, rain or shine, and earlier than most rec pickers think. But mountain kings, those persnickety royals, are harder to pin down, and this year they’ve popped in a big way. I’ve been picking them since mid-August, first on my huckleberry outings and now whenever and wherever I happen to be outside, it seems. They’re showing in places where I’ve never seen them before, among tree species that I wouldn’t expect.

The other day I stumbled on a riparian patch below 3,000 feet in a grove of Douglas-fir, western hemlock, and red-cedar—not exactly fall king habitat. Enormous #2 boletes with perfect white sponges and caps the size of cantaloupes ringed a guerrilla campsite like fenceposts, all of them miraculously worm-free. Hunters are also finding blue chanterelles (pictured above right) coming out of the woodwork. This is a rarely encountered species that is generally local to a few very specific areas, yet I’m hearing from hikers who are finding them right on the trail in some odd places.

If you’re a fan of Suillus, well have at it. Matsies are now carpeting the slopes. And Hericium is general. One species I haven’t seen much of—yet—is Sparassis, the cauliflower mushroom. Give it time.

This is a good year for recreational mushroom hunters to learn new patches. Many of these patches won’t produce on an annual basis, but if you remember them you can always check. The more patches, the better, especially if those patches are in diverse habitats.

This is also a good year to put up quantities of mushrooms. I’ve been drying and freezing porcini, not to mention lobster duxelles and chanterelles. Pizza bianca with sliced porcini buttons, sun-dried tomatoes, feta, and basil was a winner, as was the porcini-wine reduction sauce that gussied up my New York strip the other night. It’s fat times for mushroom hunters.

Full buckets, everyone!

New at Huffington Post

mushroom4I’ve started blogging for the Huffington Post. You can read my first article here, and catch a glimpse of a couple characters who star in my new book.

The article begins:

In early August I got a call from a producer for the PBS TV series Food Forward. He had seen a review copy of my new book, The Mushroom Hunters: On the Trail of an Underground America, and wanted to film itinerant mushroom harvesters for an episode on wild foods. I knew just the guy to talk to…

Read more.

The Art of Wild Mushroom Cookery

Bill Jones, an award-winning cookbook author, chef, and consultant, calls the bountiful Cowichan Valley on Vancouver Island home. There he’s restored an old farmhouse—Deerholme—to use as his base of operations. Lucky for Bill, prodigious mushroom fruitings occur in the nearby mountains, valleys, and coastal forests. I caught up with Bill recently to talk about his new cookbook, The Deerholme Mushroom Book, and his thoughts on wild mushroom foraging and cooking.

FOTL: Tell us a little bit about your neck of the woods in British Columbia. Are there specialties in your region or certain species you’re known for?

Bill Jones: The south Vancouver Island region is generally a maritime Mediterranean climate, and the Cowichan Valley is one of the sunnier places in Canada. This allows species like the white Oregon truffle to thrive. The tree type is dominantly Douglas fir with a mixture of western hemlock, grand fir, white pine, and cedar, which makes for a nice variety of terrain for many of the choice edible varieties. Fall is a pretty special place here for mushroom foraging.

One of our claims to fame is for giant versions of mushroom specimens. We have a nice combination of rainfall and heat that produces massive growth in some mushrooms. There are huge cauliflower fungi, giant Pacific golden chanterelles, and porcini that have weighed over three pounds. One of my most exciting finds was a white morel that weighed in at over two pounds.

What’s your favorite mushroom to forage?

That’s a hard question. They’re like children—hard to pick a favorite. I would say the pine mushroom [matsutake] would be at the top of the list. The aroma of a fresh pine is intoxicating. I like to stand there and breathe in the heady scent when I find one. It always makes me happy.

What sort of habitat and forest conditions do they prefer?

Locally we look on slopes with southern exposure and a mix of Douglas fir and hemlock. Nearer the coast we find them in thickets of wild huckleberry. The pine seems to like a lot of rain and the fruiting really kicks off in late October and early November.

How do you like to cook pines? 

I like to make a bowl of nice chicken stock, greens from the garden, udon noodles, and thiny sliced pine mushrooms. It is a satisfying and rewarding bowl of soup.

Why should home cooks be excited to cook with wild mushrooms?

Mushrooms are nature’s flavor booster; they make any dish a little more appealing to the taste buds. Some are dense and meaty, others are soft and supple. They all contain some degree of natural sugars which caramelize when cooked. This adds to their delicious taste and makes some mushrooms, like porcini, absolutely incredible. There are also significant medicinal benefits. Many have immune system boosting properties that can play a healthy and vibrant role in your diet. Shiitake mushrooms have been used as a medicine in China for the last thousand years.

What would you say to the beginning mushroom hunter?

It would probably be wise to say a few words about fear. The phobia of mushrooms stops a lot of people from enjoying the vast world of fungi. Much of this fear is misplaced, but some of it is warranted. I tell new foragers to educate themselves on a few easy targets like chanterelles and porcini and to have a healthy respect for all the rest. You should never consume a mushroom when you are not 100 percent sure of the identification. A good guidebook is very helpful, but nothing beats the experience of seeing the mushroom in the field. A guided forage is a good way to start, either with the local mycological society, naturalist tours, or through workshops like those we give here at Deerholme Farm.

What species and cooking techniques would you recommend for beginners?

I would recommend you start with chanterelles. Make sure they are relatively dry—spread them out on paper towel for several hours to wick away moisture. Clean off any dirt, debris, or browned edges. Heat a skillet very hot and add a mixture of butter and oil (I use grapeseed oil). Add the mushrooms and sauté until they release moisture and start to brown around the edges. Add a clove of chopped garlic and salt and pepper. This is the best way to eat chanterelles. Try on top of a grilled piece of bread, cooked pasta, or rice. Simple and delicious.

Have the mushrooms taught you anything over the years?

Mushroom hunting in our region forces you to become an environmentalist. You quickly realize that mushrooms require prime habitat to flourish. Trees are a precious resource that have deeply ingrained relationships with the local fungi population. We must protect our forests from over-harvesting and abuse if we want to see the mushrooms flourish for future generations. I try to pass this message on to all our students here on the farm. We all have a place in protecting our forests and a duty to stand up for those who cannot.

Lastly, tell us about a recipe in the book that every wild mushroom enthusiast and/or home cook should try. 

I love to play around with classic flavors and simple preparations. In the book there is a recipe for a warm bacon and potato salad that I use with many variations. You have to source good ingredients to make it really shine: local potatoes, thick-cut slab bacon, fresh herbs, and of course fresh mushrooms. Any mushroom will also work in this recipe; you could blend morels or even brown button mushrooms into the mix with excellent results.

Warm Bacon, Chanterelle, and Potato Salad

A variation on a classic German potato salad made with chanterelles. It is best to add the dressing to warm potatoes so they soak up all the dressing. Serve at room temperature.

2 lb (1 kg) potatoes, peeled
1/4 lb (115 g) thick-cut bacon, cut in thin strips
1 lb (450 g) chanterelles, cleaned and sliced salt and pepper, to taste
2 tbsp (30 ml) apple cider vinegar
2 tbsp (30 ml) olive oil
2 tbsp (30 ml) grainy mustard
1 tsp (5 ml) chopped capers
3 tbsp (45 ml) chopped sweet onion, fresh chives, or green onions, minced, for garnish

1. Add potatoes to a large pot of salted cold water. Bring to a boil and cook until tender.

2.  Meanwhile, warm a skillet over medium-high heat, add the bacon, and heat until the bacon is browned and has rendered its fat. Add the chanterelles and sauté until the mushrooms give off moisture and it has completely evaporated. Season with salt and pepper. When the mushrooms just begin to brown on the edges, remove from heat and set aside.

3. In a large mixing bowl, combine vinegar, oil, mustard, capers, and onion. Stir until mixed.

4. Drain potatoes and add while still warm to the dressing. Add the bacon and toss to coat. Serve warm, garnished with fresh chives or green onions.

Serves 6-8

Wild Mushroom and Root Vegetable Gratin

Reconstructing restaurant dishes at home is a time-honored way to improve one’s chops in the kitchen. Rather than slavishly following a recipe, the reconstruction relies on gumshoe detective work, a perilous need for improvisation, and a willingness to see the whole thing go up in flames.

Sometimes it works out. One of my best reconstructions to date is this Broiled Halibut with Licorice Fern Beurre Blanc, Truffle Butter & Root Medley.

Other times a restaurant dish can be utterly baffling in its preparation. Lucky for me, the menu at Sitka & Spruce the other night included enough clues to allow for a high probability of reconstruction success. The dish in question was written as “gratin of chanterelles, parsnips, celeriac, chard & salted pork.” That’s a generous quantity of info. I added mascarpone, since it obviously had cream of some sort, a few herbs and spices, and breadcrumbs, which were also plain to see on top. My other addition, which clearly wasn’t in Sitka’s preparation, was cauliflower mushrooms, which I used together with chanterelles (look closely at the photo and you can barely make out my car’s luggage rack; this specimen was hiding mere yards from the road).

What I didn’t have was the method, but a little online sleuthing gave me a sense of how I should proceed. The end result was nearly as good as the original: a nice balance between the savoriness of the pork with the sweetness of the chanterelles and parsnips, and a textural continuum that started with creamy and finished with a pleasing, though not overwhelming, crunch.

Next time I do this dish I won’t bother to blanche the root vegetables; they’re cut small enough to soften between the initial pan-cooking and the final baking. Also, I’ll make sure the breadcrumbs are not so fine for added crunchiness. Overall, this is a definite keeper and a great use for chanterelles, which should be used generously.

1 cup celery root, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
1 cup parsnip, cut into rounds and half-rounds
1 loose cup salt pork, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
1 leek, white part only, diced
1 lb wild mushrooms, roughly chopped
1 cup vegetable stock
1/2 cup mascarpone
1 tbsp butter
1 cup shredded chard
1 tbsp fresh thyme
fresh nutmeg
olive oil for sauté

1. Blanche celery root and parsnip in boiling water for a few minutes, until not quite fork tender. Drain and set aside. Note: this step can be omitted if root vegetables are cut to specification.

2. Meanwhile, sauté salt pork in a lightly oiled pan over medium heat, allowing fat to render and meat to brown until edges are crispy.

3. Add diced leek and cook together until soft.

4. Add wild mushrooms and cook several minutes, until mushrooms release their water and all liquid is cooked off. Remove mixture to a bowl.

5. In same pan, melt butter over medium heat and add blanched root vegetables. Cook until lightly browned, turning a few times with a spatula.

6. Return pork-leek-mushroom mixture to pan. Add vegetable stock and allow to cook down. Next add mascarpone and stir together. Mix in shredded chard. Season with thyme and several gratings of nutmeg. Adjust for salt. Consistency should be creamy, even slightly soupy. Increase stock or mascarpone if necessary.

7. Spoon into greased ramekins, cover with breadcrumbs (preferable homemade), and bake at 375 degrees for 20 minutes, checking to make sure top doesn’t burn.

Makes 4 small ramekins. Serve with good bread and defibrillator.

Steak and Chanterelle Stroganoff

Golden chanterelles got off to a banging start this summer—and then 48 straight days of rainless weather stopped the flush cold. Here we are in late September and the chanterelle crop is barely limping along. That’s why it’s important, at least for us mushroom hunters on the West Coast, to know about another species of chanterelle, the white chanterelle.

I’ve said it before with huckleberries. There’s an early huckleberry (the red) and a late huckleberry (the evergreen); there are low-elevation huckleberries (red and evergreen) and high-elevation huckleberries (thin-leaf and oval-leaf). There are 13 species of Vaccinium in Washington alone! The point is, if you want huckleberries—and who doesn’t?—it’s good to understand the many varieties, with their different habitats and calendars.

So, too, with chanterelles. There are early-fruiting spruce chanterelles and late-fruiting spruce chanterelles; there are spruce chanterelles on the coast associated with Sitka and spruce chanterelles in the mountains with Engelmann; there are Pacific golden chanterelles in the second-growth Douglas-fir, whites in the old-growth Douglas-fir, and mud hens in the oaks. There are others. Know your varieties.

White chanterelles, like lobster mushrooms, started fruiting right on schedule this year despite the lack of precip. Granted, they didn’t emerge in droves, but they were in the usual habitats if you knew where to look.

I hunt for white chanterelles in older Douglas-fir forests, and though I have a feeling they’re more apt to be found in drier forests (dry being a relative term), I’ll also find them in some of the wettest places in Washington, too. Go figure. You have to look harder for whites. They hide under the duff and moss when they’re young, and as a result they’re usually dirtier than goldens. After a few good rains they can also become quite large and meaty. The white might be my favorite chanterelle for taste and aroma. Don’t be put off by the bruising (see photo below); white chanterelles typically bruise when handled but this doesn’t affect the taste or texture.


I take some heat in my family for making dinners that no one wants to eat. You might think that my kids are getting exposed to all kinds of wonderful foods—and you’d be correct—but more often than not they just want what the other kids their age are eating at home: mac ‘n’ cheese, tacos, hot dogs, etc. My son is a fiend for Tuna Surprise, which he cooks himself a couple times a week with the usual can of Campbell’s cream of mushroom soup, a can of tuna, a can of button mushrooms, and a box of pasta. I tried wooing him with my smoked salmon version of this classic, and though it earned high marks, he goes back to the tried-and-true. My daughter, on the other hand, has declared herself a vegetarian at age seven, which is an entirely different kettle of fish (and, no, she’s not a pescatarian, so she can’t eat those fish either).

As my wife Martha reminds me, there’s no reason to get uptight about their food proclivities as long as they’re eating mostly healthy whole foods from local sources. The last thing you want to do is give a kid a food complex.

With all this in mind, I thought Martha’s request for a Stroganoff with chanterelles was brilliant. Here was something the kids would surely love: comfort food with foraged mushrooms, plus locally sourced beef added for the meat eaters. Even the sour cream, from Tillamook, would be local. Great idea!

Yeah, great for the parents. We had a neighbor and her son over to join us. The three parents ended up eating all the Stroganoff while the three kids revolted and ended up chowing down on plain pasta with butter.

6 tbsp butter, divided
1 lb top sirloin, thinly sliced
1/3 cup shallots, chopped
1 lb chanterelles, sliced
1 cup sour cream
1 tbsp Dijon mustard
1/2 cup white wine
splash cognac
salt and pepper
fresh parsley, chopped

1. Season beef with salt and pepper, then sauté in 3 tablespoons butter over medium heat in a large saucepan, cooking a minute or two before turning for another minute or two. Be careful not to overcook the beef. Remove to a bowl.

2. Sauté shallots in same pan until translucent, a couple minutes. Remove to same bowl with beef.

3. Add remaining butter to pan and sauté chanterelles several minutes. De-glaze with wine and cognac.

4. Reduce heat to low and add sour cream and mustard. Stir in a pinch of dried tarragon (or a loose tablespoon of chopped fresh). Return beef and shallots to pan and cook together another couple minutes before serving.

5. Serve over egg noodles. Garnish with paprika and parsley.

Mushroom Hunting in China and Eastern Tibet

I met a self-proclaimed globetrotter at a barbecue the other day who told me that in a lifetime of traveling he’d never been to the Far East. That’s funny, I said to him, because I just got back from China. He wasn’t impressed. “The Chinese can have it,” he said sourly. “It’s their century anyway.”

The old codger may be right about the 21st century being stamped with Chinese characters, though I’m at a loss to explain how a so-called “lifetime of traveling” translates into such a narrow world view. Maybe if George W. Bush had spent more time on foreign soil—rather than extolling his own provincialism—he might not have made such a mess of things in the White House. There’s one way to gain a better understanding of the world and its people: by crossing borders.

My recent trip took me to southwestern China and the Tibetan Plateau. The lens through which I glimpsed these places was fungi.  Mushroom season is in full swing in the monsoon-soaked highlands and I wanted to see for myself a mushroom hunting scene that has been described as one of the busiest anywhere, with economic implications that stretch far and wide. Daniel Winkler, a member of the Puget Sound Mycological Society and proprietor of Mushroaming, was my cheerful, indefatigable tour guide (besides an encyclopedic knowledge of local custom and natural history, the guy speaks enough Tibetan to hang out with nomadic yak herders).

You’ll have to take my word for it when I say that I survived adventures this July to fill a book—or  at least a lengthy essay. Much of it I’m still trying to process. China is big, jam-packed with people, and not a little overwhelming. I’ve got work ahead to bring into focus my thousands of photos, hours of audio/video, and copious notes. In the meantime, allow me to share a little of the itinerary and some accompanying images.

The trip started in Chengdu, capital of Sichuan Province, where the region’s infatuation with everything fungal was on display, at a price. Local pharmacies showed off wild medicinals such as reishi (pictured above) and Cordyceps sinensis, the caterpillar fungus. Should you seek these time-honored curatives, be prepared to open your wallet. One member of our party paid 480 rmb (about $75 US) for a dozen of the desiccated larvae of the ghost moth with their fungal parasites (called yartsa gunbu in Tibetan, with a reputation for restoring the humors, enhancing sexual prowess, and even producing Olympic Gold Medalists)—and she got a deal!

Mushrooms are widely eaten as food in the Far East, too. Restaurants in big cities and small towns alike routinely include both cultivated and wild varieties on their menus. One of the best meals of the trip was at this tiny restaurant (above) near Ya’an on the road to Kangding, where we dined on wood-ear and oyster mushrooms cooked to order by a wok-master and his wife. One of the many fun (and different) things about eating in China is seeing all the meat and produce on display in the restaurant’s glass-cased cooler; reading the menu for most of us westerners is an impossibility but one can always point.

Our first day out of Chengdu we followed rivers that I’d never heard of, rivers that, to the naked eye, would seem to dwarf the Skagit or even the Sacramento. The Red Basin is famous as the bread-basket of China, and it’s easy to see why when you start counting the major water courses that flow into it, including the 2,000-year-old irrigation diversion at Dujiangyan. There’s an unbelievable amount of water pouring out of mountains that seem to go on forever, especially during monsoon season.

We gained steady elevation, finally topping out at 8,400 feet in Kangding, a smallish city by Chinese standards with about 100,000 souls at the confluence of the Tar and Chen river gorges. Despite its size, Kangding boasted more wild mushroom dealers than I’ve ever seen in one place. Matsutake commanded the highest price, at 80 to 100 rmb per pound for #1 and #2 buttons, while the local varieties of Caesar’s amanita (Amanita hemibapha) and king bolete (Boletus sp.) were going for as much as 25 rmb for prime specimens, such as these amanita eggs below.

Other species for sale included the Himalayan gypsy (Cortinarius emodensisbelow); hawk’s wing (Sarcodon sp., below); Leccinum versipelleCatathelasma imperialis; various boletes, russulas, and chanterelles; and a Tricholoma similar to man-on-horseback.

One night we taste-tested the gypsy side by side with the mystery Tricholoma (below). The latter was favored by some, though I must say I preferred the gypsy for both taste and texture and will be looking for this mushroom more in the future. The Chinese are known for their nose-to-tail eating habits, and this catholic taste spills over into their use of fungi. Species that I don’t usually associate with the marketplace in the U.S. (e.g. Catathelasma imperialis, various russulas, and hawk’s wings) are routinely sold and eaten in China. This is in keeping with the agricultural strategy; virtually every square inch of arable land is under cultivation. With 1.4 billion inhabitants, even a nation as geographically large as China must continually think about food production.

A few days (and hard miles) later, while our drivers played cards, we investigated a likely slice of matsutake habitat in the oak forests above Yajiang with the help of a young Tibetan and his aunt (pictured below).

Fresh divots in the forest floor told the story: we were too late. Matsutake is intensively hunted on the Tibetan Plateau and represents a significant source of income for many Tibetans. The only species more important is the caterpillar fungus. Later we came upon some successful hunters in the woods. As in the U.S. and elsewhere, the pressure to find matsutake leads to a market overflowing with tiny buttons (called peanuts in the Pacific Northwest). This is compounded by the Japanese preference for unopened caps. If the pickers allowed the mushrooms to grow even a little bit, they’d make more money, but competition is so stiff that the buttons are exhumed as soon as they’re spotted. Even a seasoned matsutake hunter from North America would find the level of competition fierce. On this particular day we ran into pickers everywhere, many of them charging up and down the rough mountain roads on motorcycles.

While waiting for a landslide to be cleared—one of the many monsoon-induced road closures that would plague our journey—we met a matsutake buyer who couldn’t contain himself. Though he spoke no English, he must have understood the gist of our conversation as we all waited impatiently beside the muddy jeep track. He grabbed hold of my sleeve and ushered me back to his minivan. As he yanked open the sliding door, I imagined jack-booted authorities jumping out to arrest me, but instead I found myself staring at a carload of mostly #1 matsutake buttons, maybe 500 pounds in all.

Our high point in terms of elevation was the town of Lithang, birthplace of two Dalai Lamas. At 4,014 meters (or more than 13,000 feet above sea level), it’s one of the highest towns in the world, though it wasn’t a high point for morale. Sleep and appetite suffered in the thin air. Outside the tourist town of Yading we caught a miraculous glimpse of Mt. Chenresig, the sacred Buddhist peak of compassion (6,032 meters), normally shrouded in cloud cover.

The drive from Daocheng to Shangri-la in Yunnan Province passed through miles of awe-inspiring territory. We came across a guy selling a basketful of matsutake out in the middle of nowhere. (Or, more likely, he was waiting for his usual buyer to motor by.) This was a signal to keep our eyes peeled, and sure enough, we rounded a bend and saw a mushroom camp in the distance.

According to the people running the makeshift local store, about forty pickers plus their families had set up the camp in the past week. Some were still moving in.

The temporary settlement, with its simple tents constructed from tarps and wooden stringers cut on site, reminded me of the matsutake camp near Chemult, Oregon. There was a lot of activity as the inhabitants collected wood, shored up their domiciles with brush, and laid in supplies.

Unfortunately there was no time to linger. We had to press on to Shangri-la, a dingy city in Yunnan Province that has appropriated the famous name from Lost Horizon for itself. Yunnan is well known for its wild mushroom trade. Not surprisingly, Shangri-la had a corner of real estate devoted to the buying and selling of precious fungi.

Over the course of the trip, our group had a chance to sample many species of local edible mushrooms that we found along the way, including boletes, blewetts, a beautiful sulfur shelf, and others. We brought them to little family restaurants where there was never a question as to whether the mushrooms were safe to eat. The people know their mushrooms. Only once did a cook remind us that the responsibility was all ours.

Though our trip was built around the foraging and commerce of mushrooms, we also spent welcome time identifying mountain flora, visiting towns along the route, and exploring Buddhist monasteries. Outside Shangri-la I had one last opportunity to hunt mushrooms in China before flying back to Chengdu—on the grounds of a monastery where, among a roving band of pigs, chickens, and goats, I found a pair of  perfect Amanita hemibapha eggs and a beautiful Amanita from the vaginata group in the shadow of Tibetan prayer flags, a fitting end to an exciting and educational mushroom hunt.